The Night Forest
by Kit Campbell
She looked through the window though there was nothing to see on the other side; the depths of night hid what lay within her view.
She could sense him behind her, close enough to touch, but not.
“What is it you see out there?” That weird tightness to his voice that had been present lately.
“Nothing,” she said. “I see nothing.”
“Then why do you look?”
She shook her head and turned to look at him, this man who would one day be her husband, though now he drew subtly away from her. Why did she look, when she knew the small window and the black of night would show her nothing?
“It is past midnight,” she said instead. “Why are you not abed?”
“While you wander the halls, so shall I.” A light remark, one that could have been sweet, had she not seen the tension in his shoulders, had he not held himself so far away from her. He was watching her, like she might turn at any moment.
Turn into what, she had not decided.
The first change had been her difficulty sleeping. She’d taken to wandering the halls at night, though all slept except the guards on the walls. Still, despite her nightly excursions, she was not tired, not drained. But then, when she did sleep, the dream had come.
She was somewhere deep and dark, with trees towering overhead. She could hear and sense creatures moving around her, but was not afraid. Ahead of her, a boy ran through the trees, dodging branches and roots, his laughter echoing back to her. There was an ethereal quality to it, more light and joyous than any she’d ever heard inside the castle walls. She, too, sped through the forest, her way lit only by lightning bugs and the occasional glimmer of the moon through the canopy above. Occasionally, the boy would double back, grab her by the hand, and the two of them would journey through the forest as one.
Eventually, though, there would be a break in the trees, and she would be able to see a light, not of the moon or the stars, shining in the opening beyond the trunks. But she never made it into the clearing, never saw what made that glow, never saw where the boy led her.
Sleep would desert her, and she would be free to roam the halls again, pondering the images she had seen.
She’d never seen a tree in her waking life.
She’d never been allowed outside.
Andras, her betrothed, was the first to start drawing away, the first to start watching her as if he were afraid of what she might do. Perhaps that made sense. But it wasn’t long before she noticed it in others as well–in the way her parents watched her, sadly, distantly. In the way her lady’s maid no longer chatted while she dressed, instead completing her duties as efficiently as possible so she could be gone. In the way the guards quieted when she passed, their hands tightening on their weapons.
She had spent hours in front of her mirror, looking for whatever sign everyone else seemed to now see on her. She’d peered at her stance, at her face, at her eyes. But whatever change everyone sensed, she could not see any evidence of it. The image in the mirror was the same one that always looked back.
All that had changed was the dream, and the yearning that pulled her to look out into the dark.
She knew, as she pushed open the heavy, wooden door onto the ramparts, that she was crossing some line she would never get back. But it didn’t seem to matter. As much as she thought she was the same, the air around her inside the castle grew colder and tighter. She stopped a foot outside the door, surprised by the vastness around her, at the many points of light stretching across the sky above. There was a lone guard here, staring out over the castle’s edge, but his shoulders tensed seemingly before he heard her, and when he finally turned to meet her gaze, he bowed and was gone.
She took his place at the battlements. Below the castle, a path disappeared into the trees, as dark as the sky above them. Was this the forest of her dreams? Would she find the boy waiting if she ventured out into it?
Would that be better than staying here, in her home, and watching her family turn to ice around her?
No one came to shoo her back inside, and she stayed until the sun turned the sky to red.
She was at the window in her room when they finally came. She had always heard it called a window, but now she wondered–it was really more of a slit, just a break in the stone to let in a little light and air.
If she ventured into other parts of the castle, parts that were not hers to explore, would she find something different? Were other people allowed to gaze outside, to enjoy what lay beyond in a way that let you know there was actually something of substance there?
“Mair.” Her mother. She turned to find her parents and Andras standing just inside the room, as if they were too afraid to come any closer. “Darling. I had hoped it would not come to this.”
She had memories of running to her mother when she was young, of burying her face in her lap. If she tried that now, would her mother accept her? Or would she disappear through the door?
“I don’t understand what’s happening,” she said. “What have I done?”
“Nothing, dear one,” her mother said. “It’s not what you’ve done. It’s what you are.”
“I am your daughter. I am your heir.”
“You are Bleddyn.” Her father. He stared at the walls of her room, as if he couldn’t–or wouldn’t–meet her eyes.
The term was unfamiliar to her. She looked between the three people closest to her and felt the invisible wall between them, closing her off. “I don’t know what that is.”
“When you were born,” her mother said, quietly, “we saw the signs. But we’d hoped…we’d hoped that if we took care of you, that if we raised you right, your true nature would never manifest.”
Her mirror was just off to her right. She gazed into it, again, but still she saw no change.
Andras took a step forward, holding his hands out to her. “But it’s not too late.”
Too late for what? She started toward them, and all three automatically fell back. They were all wary of her, scared of what she would do to them. She stared down at her hands, turned them over. Bleddyn. What did that mean? She balled her hands, letting her fingernails cut into her palms. She didn’t understand.
“It’s not too late,” Andras said again. “There is a way we can suppress it, to keep locked inside you.”
“Keep what inside me? I am me. I am Mair. Nothing has changed. Why does everyone act like I might rip them apart if they get too close?”
Her father offered a cloth to Andras, who took it and pulled it open. Inside was a pot of ink and a needle, as well as a pouch.
She instinctively drew back. “Dark magic? For what purpose?”
“To keep you with us.” Andras gave her a tentative smile, holding the cloth and its contents out like an offering. “Please, Mair. It’s just a few tattoos, and then everything will go back to how it was.”
She felt the cold stone of the wall behind her. Didn’t they see? It wasn’t her–she had done nothing, had changed nothing–it was them. They were all acting strange.
Andras was getting closer, her parents trailing a foot behind him. She could feel her freedom closing in, collapsing, the air thinning out too much to breathe properly. She dodged Andras’s outstretched arms and fled into the hallway.
No one tried to stop her. Why would they? Instead, they fell away ahead of her, practically scrambling out of her way.
She should have tired; the gods knew she had never had cause for exercise. But she didn’t, and if Andras and her parents pursued her, they had been left far behind.
It seemed unimportant where she went, as long as she got away from that ink. She could almost smell the rot that lay within. But even if no one stood in her way, she could not run through the castle forever.
When she finally paused in the large, barren room where her parents had occasionally allowed her to see visitors to the castle, she realized she had seen no doors that could potentially lead out. But surely there must be some. She had seen no kitchen, no servants’ quarters, nothing that hinted at the running of the castle, but which surely must exist. They could not have walled her completely in, and others could go as they pleased.
She ducked behind the chairs on the dais, gathering her skirts in around her and peering out between the chairs’ arms. What to do now? Perhaps she should scare one of the servants into revealing the way out, but part of her resisted the idea, resisted giving into whatever they thought she was turning into, to giving them a reason to give their fear credence.
And what would she do once she got out of the castle? There was a village or something nearby, but she didn’t know in which direction, or how she would make do, having no experience with life outside these stone walls.
And there was always the possibility that the villagers would sense whatever those in the castle did, and she would not be welcome.
She shied away from those thoughts. Maybe she could follow a servant–but they always seemed to sense her, these days.
As if summoned, a panel opened in the wall halfway down the room. Two maids came out, their arms laden with linen, and the panel slid into place behind them. Both froze, looking wildly around the room, before hurrying out.
She waited only until they were gone before she left her hiding place. The wall seemed solid enough, but there must be some way to get it to open. She ran her hands down the walls. There–in the molding. She slid her finger into the notch and pulled, and the panel moved for her.
And she was through and gone.
Once she was into the belly of the castle, the way out was obvious, almost instinctive. It wasn’t long before she threw open one last door and found her slipper skidding on loose rock and damp grass. It was not yet night, though the sun was beginning to fade. Ahead of her, closer than she had ever imagined, was the forest, its contents hidden by its shadows.
She hesitated. There was no boy waiting for her–perhaps she’d been silly to think there would be. Perhaps the dream meant nothing, was only a response to the change in the people around her, only a yearning to be free of the coldness and confusion her life had descended into.
She turned to find Andras there, again, though he was alone and his hands were empty. Still, she could smell the rotten stink of black magic, so the supplies could not have gone far. Or perhaps Andras was saturated in it.
He held his hands out to her. “Darling, please. A few tattoos and your nature will be suppressed. Then we can live in peace, here, and do all the things we ever wanted to. We’ll be together.” He took a few steps closer, smiling like he used to, but she could still see the tension in his shoulders, could still note how the set of his hands was more for calming than for comfort.
“What is Bleddyn, Andras?”
He slowed, stopped. Looked back toward the door for a moment. “Does it matter?” he asked finally. “It will all be behind us soon.”
Maybe it would be better. Let them do their dark magic, suppress something that, as far as she could tell, wasn’t there. Then she could put this bout of madness behind her, and maybe they’d even let her go out, now and then, into the village or the forest.
She turned toward the trees one last time, and there he was.
She’d never seen him from the front in her dreams, but she knew it was him. He was her age, maybe a few years older, with piercing blue eyes and dark hair. He held a hand out to her, and all thoughts of returning to her stone prison fled.
Andras called something in protest from behind her, but she couldn’t make it out, as if he was far away, or speaking another language.
Her hand touched the boy’s, and they were off, just like in the dream.
Her skirts caught on no roots, her feet tripped over no brush. Her spirits and her heart soared, like she was finally where she was meant to be.
This time, when they approached the light, sleep was not stolen from her. She followed the boy past the line of trees. In the center of the clearing were several standing stones, flat and ancient, the light emanating from the center of their circle. The boy squeezed her hand and led her inside, into the light.
It tingled and warmed. She could feel her true nature be set free, could feel herself change.
Ah, so they had been right to fear her, the way any prey cowered when a predator came too close.
She joined her howl to the boy’s, and then they were off, into the night of the forest.